When interior designer Betsy Burnham redecorated her office recently, she made a decision that surprised her staff: She focused on the color white. White walls, white ceilings, white furniture, even white chandeliers.
"I'm a huge color fanatic," she says, "but I just think white makes color pop so beautifully."
Her favorite colorful accessories "never looked as good" as they do now against a white backdrop. "White is crisp, it's young and it's really flexible."
Decorating with white can be intimidating. But, says designer Brian Patrick Flynn of decordemon.com, "used correctly, white lets other things truly work as the breakout stars."
Yes, there are potential pitfalls in working with white (you're probably envisioning red wine spilled on a white sofa). But it can — honestly — be a versatile and practical option.
Why white works
"White is a trick designers use to modernize things," says Flynn. Traditional pieces of furniture and scuffed wooden floors are revitalized by white paint. Their imperfections are transformed into appealing texture.
Designer Taniya Nayak, host of HGTV's Destination Design and HGTV.com's $100 Half Day Design series, loves spray-painting old picture frames and mirrors a glossy white.
"It instantly gives them a fresh, mod look," she says.
White can feel traditional when paired with ornate pieces, or utterly modern with streamlined furniture and chrome.
"White can also kind of work as a mediator," Flynn says. "Just like bringing in a marriage counselor, white will work as a mediator between soft and loud colors. You can use it to work as a bridge between two colors."
And a room that's primarily white is easily redecorated with little expense. At her Los Angeles design firm, Burnham did a white bedroom for a client that included splashes of color in bedding and throw pillows. If the client gets bored, says Burnham, she can swap out those items for a different look.
Most surprising, white items can be easy to care for. Many white fabrics are chemically treated to be stain-resistant (or you can have them treated), and all-white slipcovers can be laundered with bleach. White vinyl, a favorite of Flynn's, doesn't stain.
Be careful in selecting upholstery, of course, and especially carpeting. A white carpet is "a train wreck waiting to happen," says Flynn, unless you can easily clean it (surprisingly, fluffy flokati rugs are often machine washable) and won't mind doing that often.
How to approach it
Flynn loves doing white walls and furniture with bold color on the ceiling, in accessories and in the interiors of bookcases.
Nayak recently created a nautical look for her HGTV series that pairs white furniture, ceilings and columns with dramatic navy blue walls and splashes of yellow.
If you prefer something preppier, she says, try white and navy with a bit of bright green. (Other color combos she likes: Rooms done entirely in black and white, or white with gray and chartreuse accents.)
If you have a room with large windows, you'll make the view more of a focal point by doing a very white room. "The view becomes your art," says Nayak.
These designers say the options for working with white are numerous. White decor contrasts well with textured stone or concrete floors, and looks glamorous paired with lots of green plants. Another choice: "Find wallpaper that's tone-on-tone, or white but embossed with texture," Nayak says.
Choose your shades of white carefully.
"You want it to be livable, not like Liquid Paper," Burnham says. "If there's too much blue in it, it's just going to be blinding."
Some whites are warmer, with a slightly yellow undertone, while others have a cool, bluer tinge. There are also greenish whites, purplish whites and many other varieties.
If you're using several white elements in one room, a mix of cool and warm whites can clash. And remember that changes in daylight (from golden sunshine to the gray light of a cloudy day) may change the way a particular shade of white appears.
If you're using glossy white paint, it will draw attention to imperfections in ceilings, walls, floors and furniture. If that's not appealing to you, Nayak says matte paints are better for hiding imperfections: "Matte is a flat look, but washable."
One worry about very white rooms is that they can feel impersonal. "I love bringing in wood tones" in floors, ceilings or furniture, says Nayak. "That's the No. 1 way to warm up a white room."
Anything from a pale natural wood to a darkly stained finish can work with white.
All three designers suggest mixing in strokes of color or even a bit of animal print, rather than doing a room entirely in white. It's a challenge to give an all-white room personality, Flynn says.
"I'm absolutely blown away and captivated when somebody can successfully pull off an all-white room. But to really pull it off," he says, you have to be "a master with texture, scale and shape.
"I love all-white rooms to look at, but I don't necessarily know I could live in one."